Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2019 NFL Draft. Herbie Teope examines the current makeup of the NFC South below.
As the four teams prepare for the 2019 campaign, the division still goes through New Orleans. However, the Saints need to muster up another round of mental toughness after their second heart-breaking postseason exit in as many years. But there is a silver lining, as the controversy stemming from the Saints' loss in the NFC Championship Game prompted change to the rules governing the NFL's replay system.
In Atlanta, the Falcons need new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to get the most out of a potentially potent offense, which proved an issue for Steve Sarkisian over the past two seasons. Koetter has familiarity with quarterback Matt Ryan from previously serving as Atlanta's coordinator, so that will help. The Falcons also need to stay healthy, as injuries, especially on defense, contributed to the derailing of their 2018 season.
Head coach Ron Rivera is likely to continue calling defensive plays for Carolina, but the team's season will once again bank on the arm and legs of quarterback Cam Newton. The Panthers will also experience transition on defense with the departure of some veteran leaders, including longtime linebacker Thomas Davis, who signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as a free agent.
As for Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers turned the head-coaching reins over to Bruce Arians, who came out of retirement to take the job. Arians' primary mission will be getting quarterback Jameis Winston to fulfill his potential as he enters the final year of his contract. Arians is trying to turn around a franchise that's coming off two straight 5-11 seasons and hasn't been to the postseason since 2007.
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Head coach Sean Payton mentioned at the NFL Scouting Combine that the Saints would look at tight ends before the 2019 NFL Draft, and Payton found what he was looking for. One of the league's top passing offenses received a major boost with the arrival of Cook, who signed a two-year deal with the team last month and projects to provide the Saints their best receiving tight end since Jimmy Graham left via trade in 2015. The Saints entered the offseason with Josh Hill, Garrett Griffin and Dan Arnold on the roster at the position after Benjamin Watson's retirement, so Cook offers a huge pass-catching upgrade. His 68 receptions for 896 yards and six touchdowns with the Oakland Raiders in 2018 out-paced all Saints tight ends combined the past season. The Saints enjoy utilizing a 12-personnel grouping (one running back, two tight ends), but now have the missing piece in the passing game with Cook, whose receiving ability in the middle of the field should help take away defensive pressure on wide receiver Michael Thomas.
Mark Ingram leaving the Saints and signing with the Baltimore Ravens warrants consideration here, but there are three other teams in the division that suffered losses, too (and the Saints' signing of RB Latavius Murray lessened the blow at bit for New Orleans). The Falcons once boasted one of the NFL's top backfields with an effective one-two punch featuring Coleman and Devonta Freeman, but they now must find a way to replace the production they lost with Coleman's departure. In four seasons with the Falcons, Coleman gained 2,340 yards rushing and 1,010 yards receiving with 29 total touchdowns (18 rushing) as an ideal complementary rusher to Freeman. With Coleman's exit, the Falcons first need a healthy Freeman, who played in just two games in 2018, and then they must figure out the pecking order among Ito Smith, Brian Hill and Kenjon Barner, who joined Atlanta in free agency after spending the 2018 season in Carolina, if they don't add a rusher via the draft.
Paradis' health is worth monitoring as he returns from a fractured fibula -- he's said he expects to be cleared to return by June -- but the Panthers were comfortable enough with his recovery to sign him to a three-year deal in the first days of free agency. Carolina's front five did a nice job last season paving the way for running back Christian McCaffrey and the league's fourth-ranked rushing attack. But Paradis fills the spot previously anchored by five-time Pro Bowl selectee Ryan Kalil, who retired after 12 seasons. The Panthers need Paradis to be more than just a competent replacement, as he'll be expected to be an immediate starter and leader on the offensive line. If he thrives in those roles, there's no reason why the Panthers can't continue being one of the NFL's top rushing units.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons did a good job of bolstering depth within the offensive line by signing guards James Carpenter, Jamon Brown and Adam Gettis. Defensively, though, the Falcons need to shore up the edges given the losses of Bruce Irvin (Panthers) and Brooks Reed (Cardinals). Adding a defensive tackle to help Grady Jarrett certainly wouldn't hurt, as would an injection of more talent at the cornerback position given the departures of Robert Alford (Cardinals) and Brian Poole (Jets). They have the draft capital to address those needs, with nine total picks. Outside of the draft, the Falcons are making progress on long-term deals for Jarrett, who received the franchise tag, and wide receiver Julio Jones.
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers took care of their own by re-signing safety Eric Reid and offensive tackle Daryl Williams, but the team should look to add another cornerback in a division full of high-powered passing games and in light of ranking 18th against the pass in 2018. Bringing in more pieces on the offensive line should be on the menu, too, given the amount of injuries the team endured on the front five last year. While the Panthers, who hold seven picks in the 2019 draft, signed defensive end Bruce Irvin away from the Falcons, adding another pass rusher through the draft would also make sense following the retirement of Julius Peppers. Carolina is set at QB1, but the Panthers should consider bolstering the competition behind Cam Newton at the position given his continued recovery from shoulder surgery.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints currently hold six total draft picks, but will be watching from the sidelines in the first, third and fourth rounds after dealing away those picks in trades. The lack of early picks signals the Saints might have a hard time snagging an immediate contributor, and that should be fine at team headquarters given that the pieces are mostly already in place for another run at a Super Bowl with a 40-year-old Drew Brees. At defensive tackle, Sheldon Rankins might not be ready for the start of the 2019 campaign while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the postseason. The Saints have David Onyemata returning and signed Malcom Brown and Mario Edwards at the position, but it wouldn't hurt to add another big body to the rotation. If the Saints feel the same way, bringing back Tyeler Davison, who remains unsigned in a slow free-agent market for defensive tackles, more than makes sense. Davison knows the scheme well after four seasons in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Given head coach Bruce Arians' recent lukewarm take on Gerald McCoy, the defensive tackle position might be a high priority for the new coaching staff. Linebacker is likely on the wish list, too -- perhaps on the edge and inside, although the Bucs did sign edge rusher Shaquil Barrett. Inside linebacker is clearly a need after the departure of Kwon Alexander to the San Francisco 49ers. Tampa Bay recently brought in former LSU ILB Devin White, a projected first-round pick, for a pre-draft visit. Ultimately, there's a lot of retooling needed for a defense that is transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base under new coordinator Todd Bowles.